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How the Lottery Has Become a Part of American Culture


The lottery is a gambling game in which participants pay small sums of money for the chance to win a larger prize. The prize can be anything, from a house to a car or even a whole fortune. Although the game is illegal in most countries, it has become a fixture of American culture. Its origins can be traced to the ancient practice of casting lots, which was used for everything from determining the best wine at a Roman feast to divining God’s will.

In the modern era, state lotteries began to emerge as an alternative source of public revenue in the 1960s, and they quickly gained popularity throughout the country. Their appeal as a way to raise funds for social programs was particularly appealing in a period when states were experiencing budget crises and facing increasingly anti-tax sentiment among voters. In fact, as the author of one study notes, “the actual fiscal situation of a state does not appear to have much bearing on its willingness to adopt a lottery.”

By the late 1980s, almost every state was offering a lottery. This development coincided with a decline in the financial security of most working Americans. The income gap widened, unemployment rose, pensions and job security disappeared, health-care costs soared, and the long-standing national promise that a person’s hard work would guarantee him or her better standards of living than his or her parents had experienced fell apart. The lottery became the perfect scapegoat for this growing sense of helplessness, a popular substitute for government spending and investment.

State lottery officials are savvy marketers and they know how to keep people coming back. They create an atmosphere of excitement, hype, and fantasy. They also design their games to make winning feel like a real possibility. They use a range of tactics, some of which are similar to those used by other businesses that market addictive products—like tobacco companies and video-game manufacturers. For example, they often offer a series of smaller prizes to build up to the big payouts. In addition to the prizes, they also make sure that their advertising is provocative and sexy.

The story in this issue of The New Yorker, “The Lottery,” illustrates this trend. It takes place in a village where the locals are holding their annual lottery. The villagers draw slips from a box, and each person has the same chance of becoming the victim of a random act of violence. The victims are guilty of no particular transgression, other than drawing the wrong slip. The ritual of the lottery gives the villagers a sense of control over their lives and of being protected from outsiders.

A skeptic might argue that a lottery is not really gambling at all, since the winners are chosen by chance rather than through skill. But it is still a form of gambling, and it works on many of the same psychological principles as other types of gambling. The lottery’s popularity is due to an alluring mixture of fantasy, anticipation, and a feeling that the outcome will be shaped by personal effort.